Quote of the Day: Richard Feynman on the Unknown

 

“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live, not knowing, than to have answers which might be wrong.” — Richard Feynman

It comes at about the middle of this interview excerpt:

A man of science. Not a religious man, but one who was smart enough to recognize that…

…science [cannot] disprove the existence of God; I think that is impossible. And if it is impossible, is not a belief in science and in a God — an ordinary God of religion — a consistent possibility?

One thing I am [pretty] sure of is that Richard Feynman would find the contemporary invocation of, and reliance on, “settled science” to be deeply disturbing.  He said:

It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty… Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.

“Oh Brave Old World, that had such people in ‘t!”

It makes me want him to have said what started out to be my Quote of the Day, but the provenance of which I can’t back up, although it’s attributed, all over the place, to Richard Feynman:

I would rather have questions that cannot be answered, than answers that cannot be questioned.

If he didn’t say it, he should have. Curious character, Mr. Feynman.

So. What do you think of the actual, or putative, quote of the day? (It’s not a trick question. And no answer is out of bounds.)

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  1. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    Great post! I try to embrace the paradox: wanting to know the future and also appreciating the mystery of life unfolding. I do my best to practice ( as I receive my first chemo infusion) the latter.

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  2. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    She, this is way too deep for me on a Wednesday morning.  What are you after here?  Are you trying to show us, with this post, that you also have a flawed human side after you blew us all away with that impossibly beautiful piece you wrote for us your last time out?

    Besides,  have way too many parenthetical expressions in your opening paragraph. 

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  3. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    She, this is way too deep for me on a Wednesday morning. What are you after here? Are you trying to show us, with this post, that you also have a flawed human side after you blew us all away with that impossibly beautiful piece you wrote for us your last time out?

    Besides, have way too many parenthetical expressions in your opening paragraph.

    Or for me, even on a Tuesday morning, like today{;-)

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  4. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    JoelB (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):

    She, this is way too deep for me on a Wednesday morning. What are you after here? Are you trying to show us, with this post, that you also have a flawed human side after you blew us all away with that impossibly beautiful piece you wrote for us your last time out?

    Besides, have way too many parenthetical expressions in your opening paragraph.

    Or for me, even on a Tuesday morning, like today{;-)

    It’s Wednesday in Portland.

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  5. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    She: “I would rather have questions that cannot be answered, than answers that cannot be questioned.”

    I just wanted to pull that out and put it in a comment box by itself. :-)  

     

    • #5
  6. Sisyphus Member
    Sisyphus
    @Sisyphus

    She: It’s not a trick question.  And no answer is out of bounds.

    The gauntlet is hurled!

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  7. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    She: “Oh Brave Old World, that had such people in ‘t!”

    I believe you are one such person, and am grateful that you share your insights with us. 

    • #7
  8. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus
    @JClimacus

    She:

    One thing I am [pretty] sure of is that Richard Feynman would find the contemporary invocation of, and reliance on, “settled science” to be deeply disturbing. He said:

    It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature. To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

    This is a fascinating post on the philosophy of science. And it is important to make that distinction: What Feynman is writing in the above is not science but a philosophy of science.

    He writes that “Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt.” As a statement concerning science, this may very well be true. But is it true of statements respecting, not science, but philosophy of science? For instance the statement “Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt” itself as an instance of the philosophy of science: Is that a statement that we should not take as certain or proved beyond all doubt? In that case, there very well may be things in science (or the philosophy of science) that are certain and proved beyond all doubt. If we take it as certain, then there may not be statements in science that are certain, but we have just given an example of one that is certain in the philosophy of science.

    My impression is that Feynman does not want us to entertain doubts about the statement “Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt” with respect to science.  In fact, he tells us that maintaining doubt in science is “imperative” and “absolutely necessary”: The scientist must certainly have “uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature.” But there is the paradox: As a scientist, Feynman must never lose sight of the uncertainty of science, which means that as a philosopher of science, he must hold on to the certainty that science is uncertain. 

    There is nothing contradictory about this – a paradox is just an apparent contradiction, not a real one. Some areas of human inquiry may result only in probable results – like science – others may be capable of producing certain results, as in the philosophy of science. 

    With respect to God, I think Feynman goes wrong by putting the question of God at the wrong level of discourse: The question of God is appropriately addressed not in scientific discourse, but in philosophical discourse. Science can’t prove or disprove the existence of God anymore than it can prove or disprove the existence of scientists.  But I’ve run out of space to expand on that.

     

    • #8
  9. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    J Climacus (View Comment):

    This is a fascinating post on the philosophy of science. And it is important to make that distinction: What Feynman is writing in the above is not science but a philosophy of science.

    He writes that “Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt.” As a statement concerning science, this may very well be true. But is it true of statements respecting, not science, but philosophy of science? For instance the statement “Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt” itself as an instance of the philosophy of science: Is that a statement that we should not take as certain or proved beyond all doubt? In that case, there very well may be things in science (or the philosophy of science) that are certain and proved beyond all doubt. If we take it as certain, then there may not be statements in science that are certain, but we have just given an example of one that is certain in the philosophy of science.

    My impression is that Feynman does not want us to entertain doubts about the statement “Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt” with respect to science. In fact, he tells us that maintaining doubt in science is “imperative” and “absolutely necessary”: The scientist must certainly have “uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature.” But there is the paradox: As a scientist, Feynman must never lose sight of the uncertainty of science, which means that as a philosopher of science, he must hold on to the certainty that science is uncertain.

    There is nothing contradictory about this – a paradox is just an apparent contradiction, not a real one. Some areas of human inquiry may result only in probable results – like science – others may be capable of producing certain results, as in the philosophy of science.

    With respect to God, I think Feynman goes wrong by putting the question of God at the wrong level of discourse: The question of God is appropriately addressed not in scientific discourse, but in philosophical discourse. Science can’t prove or disprove the existence of God anymore than it can prove or disprove the existence of scientists. But I’ve run out of space to expand on that.

    Terrific comment.  And of course, anyone who makes an unequivocal statement insisting that one must leave room for doubt, has left the field wide open, as I think Feynman liked to.  This is one of the reasons Mr. She liked him so much, just as he liked Raymond Smullyan, another fascinating character, and a person whose logic problems often made my head explode.  One of the paragraphs in your comment reminded me irresistibly of one of them.  (That’s a good thing.)

    Both Feinman and Smullyan, I think, had a remarkable ability to speak the complexities of their respective fields in terms that were understandable–and even sometimes enjoyable–(and vice-versa) for laymen to read or listen to.

    I think the distinction you make between a philosophy of science, and science itself is a good one, and I’m on board with your conclusions.  Do you think, though, that such a distinction is regularly made these days?  Because it seems to me that (to overuse an overused metaphor) the Left has weaponized “science,” and absent any overarching philosophy, which it doesn’t have time for, or which won’t fit in a sound bite, or which it might find incredibly inconvenient, just beats us over the head with whatever “infallible” “scientific” conclusion, on any given day, supports their agenda.

     

     

    • #9
  10. J Climacus Member
    J Climacus
    @JClimacus

    She (View Comment):

    I think the distinction you make between a philosophy of science, and science itself is a good one, and I’m on board with your conclusions. Do you think, though, that such a distinction is regularly made these days? Because it seems to me that (to overuse an overused metaphor) the Left has weaponized “science,” and absent any overarching philosophy, which it doesn’t have time for, or which won’t fit in a sound bite, or which it might find incredibly inconvenient, just beats us over the head with whatever “infallible” “scientific” conclusion, on any given day, supports their agenda.

    I would definitely agree with this. The other thing the Left likes to do is elide the distinction – and this distinction goes all the way back to Socrates – between knowledge and opinion. When a scientist conducts research in his lab and produces a result, that result is (scientific) knowledge for him. That’s because he understands the scientific reasons and the data that support the scientific conclusions. When he announces that conclusion to the public, the conclusion doesn’t become scientific knowledge for the public, since the public (except in a few cases) doesn’t have the scientific education or access to the data to understand the reasons for the conclusion. Instead it becomes an opinion for the public, based on faith in the reliability of the particular scientist(s) who produced the result.

    That doesn’t make it “bad” or unreasonable to hold opinions based on the pronouncements of scientists, but it’s a mistake to think that we “have science” to the extent that we sign on to the pronouncements of scientists. No, they have science, we have opinion based on what they tell us. It’s another way the Left likes to enslave us by inviting us to think we are getting something from nothing. Just like they want us to believe we can become wealthy by the government printing money and handing it out, so we can be “scientific” by signing on to pronouncements that gov’t bureaucrats announce are “scientific.” No need to actually get a job in the former case, or to educate yourself in the latter.

     

     

     

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  11. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    J Climacus (View Comment):
    Just like they want us to believe we can become wealthy by the government printing money and handing it out, so we can be “scientific” by signing on to pronouncements that gov’t bureaucrats announce are “scientific.” No need to actually get a job in the former case, or to educate yourself in the latter.

    I think this is what my former boss, who will always be one of the smartest and wisest people I know, but who sometimes has a unique and picturesque way of expressing himself, calls the “crust” of the matter.  The Left does us a favor by incorporating us, by reference, as “scientists” when we follow the (current) diktats of Dr. Fauci, Michael Mann, and others on their side who profess nonsense such as that it is prividential (I think I just made that word up), if not impossible to assign an individual’s sex at birth.  They know they must be right.  (AOC exemplifies this sort of thing, every time she opens her mouth.) When we argue, even from evidence, we become “science deniers,” and there is no circle of Hell low enough for us to crawl about in.

     

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  12. Michael Brehm Coolidge
    Michael Brehm
    @MichaelBrehm

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  13. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    J Climacus (View Comment):
    That doesn’t make it “bad” or unreasonable to hold opinions based on the pronouncements of scientists, but it’s a mistake to think that we “have science” to the extent that we sign on to the pronouncements of scientists. No, they have science, we have opinion based on what they tell us.

    This is really an excellent explanation! When people talk about “the science is settled” it just shows how little they know about actual science and research. If they knew about science, they would know that because of the scientific method, “science” is rarely “settled!” 

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